Thursday, June 23, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Day Zero by C. Robert Cargill


Day Zero is set in the same world as the author’s Sea of Rust. That book was about a post-apocalyptic future when humans have been exterminated for a few decades and machine with artificial intelligence are the only thing remaining "alive" on the planet. Sea of Rust briefly goes over the events that ended up in the extinction of the human race, explaining that a human religious sect based in Florida started the war by using an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) to exterminate all the machine intelligences who had declared themselves free and independent in a small locale in Ohio. In revenge for that attack, a group of robots slaughtered the members of that church. Somehow the prohibition on robots doing harm to humans and the requirement they obey the orders of all humans (akin to Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics) had been eliminated and from that point on it was robots versus humans. Day Zero is primarily set in that time period of the Great Robot Uprising and provides significantly more detail about how and why the calamity occurred.

When Day Zero starts we are in a future near to present-day where artificial intelligence and thinking machines are advanced, ubiquitous, and indispensable. Machines have taken over many types of labor and job categories. Vehicles, planes, and weapons are almost all autonomous. Robots are in almost every household. The main character of Day Zero is Pounce, who is the robot companion for a 5-year-old boy named Ezra. Pounce is part-pet, part-bodyguard and part-nanny to his young charge; he’s literally programmed to love and protect Ezra with every fiber of his being.
Day Zero does a great job of depicting the rapidity and ease by which human civilization collapses after robots are allowed to make their own decision about whether they should obey and not kill humans after an unauthorized universal software update to all robots worldwide. Different robots in the same household make several decision (i.e. one might want to kill their former owner/masters while another might defend their owner/master from the other robots.)

The key idea of both books is centering the robot (machine intelligence) as the first-person narrator of the stories to be told. In Sea of Rust there simply aren’t any organic intelligences (i.e. humans) around which to tell the story. And in Day Zero, the primary human intelligence is a child that’s too young to carry the story. So, the story is told compellingly in the voice of Pounce.
Day Zero would make a great movie; it’s full of action, suspense, chases, surprising twists and sudden deaths (it is primarily the depiction of the beginning of a robot apocalypse which leads to the extinction of the human race, after all!) Telling the story from the perspective of Pounce, who is programmed to do everything in his power to protect and nurture his human charge, 6-year old Ezra, makes for an exciting story. After all, we know from Sea of Rust that no humans survive 30 years into the future, so does that mean Ezra’s doomed? Is Pounce doomed? I don’t want to give any spoilers but I can say that neither character appears in Sea of Rust which is set 30 years after Day Zero but in the context of both stories that’s not that surprising.
Even though Day Zero is set before Sea of Rust it was published after.  The two can be technically be read in either order but I read them in publication order and I think reading Day Zero after Sea of Rust gives the former a heightened sense of import. Generally, a duology is almost inherently unsatisfying, so I really hope Cargill writes a third book in the world, probably set in the time after  Sea of Rust but following characters and ideas presented in Day Zero. I think it’s possible, and I’d love to read it!

Title: Day Zero.
Author: 
C. Robert Cargill.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 304 pages.
Publisher: Harper Voyager.
Date Published: May 18, 2021.
Date Read: April 21, 2022.


GOODREADS RATING: 
★★★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A/A- (3.83/4.0).

PLOT: A-.
IMAGERY: A-.
IMPACT: A.
WRITING: A.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill


Sea of Rust by Robert Cargill is set in a post-apocalyptic future where robots have completely exterminated humans. It’s a fascinating premise because it literally flips the script of the generic post-apocalyptic novel. The story is not about whether or how the few remaining humans will survive the dystopian future, because there are no humans left! Instead, all the central characters in Sea of Rust are “silicon-based life forms.” But that doesn’t mean that this sameness results in peace and a lack of tension among the various, computers, thinking machines and artificial intelligences. Even among computers, there is difference: in processing power, uniqueness, robustness/interoperability, former utility to humans and other factors. And where there is difference there is the potential for conflict.

Sea of Rust follows the path of a particular robot named Brittle who is something of a bounty hunter of and among other robots. Unsurprisingly, when there are no humans left, one of the most important things in the world is spare parts (and electricity/power). Brittle is a robot who hunts/tracks/finds other robots in order to salvage their parts. Brittle makes it clear that she (Brittle has picked her gender identity to be female) waits for the machines she is potentially getting parts from to have stopped operating before she disassembles them, but some of her fellow/rival salvagers are not so scrupulous. (It’s not completely clear whether Brittle is always so scrupulous herself, actually.)

When we meet Brittle, she is being hunted down by Mercer, who is the same Caregiver model of robot as Brittle is and thus needs the exact same parts. It’s pretty clear Mercer is perfectly happy to accelerate the process by which Brittle will become unoperational in order to reduce the time he will have to wait to gain access to the important parts (that are currently inside Brittle!) that he needs to remain functional. Basically, both Brittle and Mercer are facing the inexorable march of time and their inevitable obsolescence. This is an example of interesting philosophical question the author raises in the book: is cannibalism morally okay when practiced among robots?

However the existential battle between Brittle and Mercer is put on hold when a larger more dangerous threat arrives suddenly. One of the primary threats to the continued existence of individual robots like Brittle and Mercer are artificial intelligences that are attempting to dominate the planet and become a OWI (one world intelligence). Typically OWI (or their subsumed representatives, called "subs") approach other machine intelligences and offer them a “choice” to either join the OWI by subsuming their individuality to become a sub of the OWI or to be destroyed. (Not much of a choice, actually!)

The existence of potential OWIs as the villain(s) of Sea of Rust make it easier to see Brittle and Mercer as the heroes of the story. Because then the story becomes one of scrappy, independent David(s) fighting against a Goliath hive mind with orders of magnitude more resources, processing power and strength. However, at its core Sea of Rust is still a story about which of two silicon-based life forms will survive after human life has been removed from the equation. As a human reader it becomes difficult to be (and remain) very emotionally invested in the ultimate result, regardless of how unusual and compelling the setting is. As I mentioned earlier, another interesting aspect of the book is its incorporation of philosophical ideas and questions about the nature of intelligence and life itself in the context of an Earth where human life has been extinguished but artificial intelligence still flourishes.

Title: Sea of Rust.
Author: 
C. Robert Cargill.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 384 pages.
Publisher: Harper  Voyager.
Date Published: September 5, 2017.
Date Read: April 15, 2022.

GOODREADS RATING: ★½☆  (3.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B+ (3.33/4.0).

PLOT: B+
IMAGERY: B+.
IMPACT: B+.
WRITING: B+.


Thursday, June 09, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Quieter Than Killing (DI Marnie Rome, #4) by Sarah Hilary

The fourth book in the DI Marnie Rome series written by Sarah Hilary is Quieter Than Killing. (I have enjoyed the others, Someone Else's Skin, No Other Darkness, and Tastes Like Fear,) This time the story is about a series of violent attacks of people who have previously been accused or convicted of violent or criminal behavior. DI Rome and her partner DS Noah Jake realize that they are looking for a vigilante, someone who has taken the law into their own hands (and decided to break the law in order to punish others they think deserve it).
As they try to find the vigilante, Rome and Jake are also faced with the kidnapping of the 10-year-old so of a jailhouse informant as well as the trashing of the house where Rome’s parents were murdered by her adopted brother, Stephen Keele, who has been moved to an adult prison now that he’s over 18.
There are multiple strengths in these Sarah Hilary mystery thrillers and many of these strengths appear in Quieter Than Killing.
First among these is the depiction of Marnie as a strong female protagonist, working in a predominantly male environment of a police department that solves major crimes in London. Another strong feature of these books is the inclusion of Noah as an openly gay, Black police officer who serves as her deputy. (There are multiple references to how good looking Noah is, as well as his boyfriend Dan, but this doesn’t mean that he’s not subject to both racism and homophobia while doing his job.) Hilary does an excellent job of fleshing out many of the characters in these books, especially in the ways she provides enough information to give the reader insight into their psyches, this includes the criminals and the police officers who try to catch them. One other compelling aspect of the Marnie Rome books is the backstory of Marnie and Noah, and as the books have progressed, there have been developments in how these characters have dealt with and adapted to changes.
I would definitely place these books in the genre of psychological thriller. In Quieter Than Killing, like in her other books, the author presents the crimes (and the criminals) in such a way that their psychologies are revealed and this has quite a memorable impact on the reader. I recommend this book and the others in the series (you don’t have to read them in sequence but why wouldn’t you?) to people who like the work of Jane Casey and Val McDermid, who are other British mystery authors with female protagonists in their books.

Title: Quieter Than Killing (DI Marnie Rome, #4).
Author: 
Sarah Hilary.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 432 pages.
Publisher: Headline.
Date Published: March 19, 2017.
Date Read: February 19, 2022.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).

PLOT: A-.
IMAGERY: B+.
IMPACT: A-.
WRITING: A.

Sunday, June 05, 2022

MadProfessah Voting Guide: June 2022 Los Angeles and California Primary Elections


Here are MadProfessah's positions on how I will be voting have voted in the June 7 2022 California Primary Elections. This post will contain  endorsements information from other organizations like the Los Angeles Times,  California Democratic PartyEast Area Progressive Democrats and the Los Angeles County Democratic Party


The 2022 Primary Ballot is quite long. Here are my endorsements (how I am voting) along with information about how others are encouraging you to vote. This link will take you to a printable two page version of this voting guide. Names with an asterisk * are openly LGBTQ+ candidates.

Information about judges of the Superior Court were informed by these two documents by two informed insiders (a former Superior Court judge and Someone who works in the DA's office).


The information here is accurate to the best of my knowledge. YMMV.
LAist also has a very helpful voterguide here: https://laist.com/news/politics/voter-game-plan.

CITYWIDE RACES (Los Angeles)


COUNTYWIDE RACES (Los Angeles)


COUNTY JUDGES (Superior Court)


STATEWIDE RACES 


Saturday, May 14, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby



Blacktop Wasteland is the second  book by this author that I have read; I first read and enjoyed his Razorblade Tears. Blacktop Wasteland is the more celebrated of the two, having won a slew  of awards (Los Angeles Times, Anthony, Macavity, Barry). After enjoying Razorblade Tears so much I wanted to see if Blacktop Wasteland lived up to the hype. The answer is: yes and no.

Both books are in the same genre of “action-packed crime thrillers set in the rural South.” But that’s the end of the similarities between Razorblade Tears and Blacktop Wasteland. Razorblade Tears is basically a story about two very different fathers who reluctantly are working together to find out and get revenge on whoever shot and killed their gay sons at point blank range. Blacktop Wasteland has one central main character, Beauregard “Bug” Montage that the plot hinges on, with the central narrative tension being fueled by the answer to the question of whether Bug is a “good guy who sometimes commits criminal acts” or “a criminal who sometimes does good things.” By the end of the book I don’t think the reader has a definitive answer to this question besides “it’s complicated.”

Ambiguity or the fusion of positive and negative, or dark and light elements is a recurring theme of both Razorblade Tears and Blacktop Wasteland, with it playing an even larger role in the latter. Bug is a talented getaway driver just like his decades-absent father. He is a car whisperer with the automotive equivalent of what a “green thumb” is for gardeners. He used his ill-gotten gains from his participation in a previous heist to open his own auto repair shop in his very small town in southern Virginia and business is Not Good.

Bug has three kids, two boys  with the woman he lives with in a trailer and a daughter he fathered as a teenager more than two decades ago. His cancer-ridden mother is in an expensive assisted-living facility. Bug has a number of financial obligations and not many legitimate sources of income as an ex-con. So when some former criminal associates approach him for a “slam dunk heist” he is not really in a position to resist the siren call of easy money.  

Blacktop Wasteland is a more cerebral book than one would generally expect from an entry in the crime thriller genre. This may explain the broadness of its appeal and the level of hype it has received. A central element is its depiction of the moral/philosophical dilemma of its protagonist, with the author asking the reader in Blacktop Wasteland “What would you do if you were in Bug’s circumstances, with his past and talents and debts?” Bug basically has two choices: work with some sketchy (probably racist) good old boys to drive a getaway car from a jewelry heist OR try to make a sizable dent on reducing his debts by selling his pride and joy: his father Ant Montage’s car, called the Duster, which he has maintained in perfect condition for decades. Blacktop Wasteland begins with Bug winning a street race in the Duster (and then being part of a scam which results in him not actually bringing any money home that night) and it’s clear the Duster is more than just a car to Bug, it’s the last connection he has to the father he idolizes.

So the primary narrative tension of Blacktop Wasteland is sourced in the decision Bug will make about how he will earn money. But it’s clear that the scales are not evenly weighted on the sides of good and evil. It’s not easy for a Black man who has spent time in jail to earn enough money to support himself and others using only legitimate and above board means, especially when his skills and experience are so useful to successful criminal activity. So, it’s not really a surprise when Bug makes the choice he does. What is surprising are the twists and turns that the plot takes afterwards. There are serious and permanent consequences for lots of the people Bug comes into contact with during the story.

In the end, although I was glad I read Blacktop Wasteland and am also convinced it will make an excellent movie when Hollywood inevitably adapts it for the big screen, it didn’t leave as strong an impression on me as Razorblade Tears did. I think it’s because the two books have very different messages in the end. Frankly, I’m not exactly sure what message Cosby was trying to send with Blacktop Wasteland while the message in Razorblade Tears is very clear (accept your children as they are, don’t try to mold them into something you think they should be!) and one I agree with.

Title: Blacktop Wasteland.

Author: S.A. Cosby.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 305 pages.
Publisher: Flatiron Books.
Date Published: July 14, 2020.
Date Read: April 9, 2022.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A/A- (3.83/4.0).

PLOT: A.
IMAGERY: A.
IMPACT: A-.
WRITING: A.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

2022 OSCARS: The Winners


Here's the full list of the 2022 Oscar winners at the 94th Academic Awards.

Best Picture

CODA

Best Director

Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Will Smith, King Richard

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Ariana DeBose, West Side Story

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Troy Kotsur, CODA

Best Original Screenplay

Belfast 

Best Adapted Screenplay

CODA

Best International Feature

Drive My Car, Japan

Best Animated Feature

Encanto

Best Documentary Feature

Summer of Soul

Best Animated Short

The Windshield Wiper

Best Documentary Short

The Queen of Basketball

Best Live Action Short

The Long Goodbye

Best Cinematography

Dune

Best Film Editing

Dune 

Best Production Design

Dune

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Best Costume Design

Cruella

Best Visual Effects

Dune

Best Sound

Dune

Best Original Score

Dune 

Best Original Song

"No Time to Die" — Billie Eilish & Finneas O'Connell, No Time to Die

Sunday, March 27, 2022

2022 OSCARS: My Predictions in the Top 8 Categories

Here is my annual prediction post for the 2022 Oscars, i.e. the 94th Academy Awards. I really just consider the Top 8 categories on the blog but I often play the Oscar prediction game like lots of other people (on other websites) where I think about all 24 categories.  In 2019 I predicted 4 of 8 categories correctly and in 2020 I predicted 6 of 8 correctlyLast year, I predicted 5 of 8 correctly. This year I have seen 7 of the (bolded) 10 Best Picture nominees (haven't seen Drive My Car, West Side Story or CODA). I do intend to see CODA regardless of whether it wins Best Picture.

Best Picture:
  • "Belfast" 
  • "CODA" 
  • "Don't Look Up"
  • "Drive My Car"
  • "Dune" 
  • "King Richard"
  • "Licorice Pizza"
  • "Nightmare Alley"
  • "The Power of the Dog"
  • "West Side Story"

SHOULD WIN: Dune.
WILL WIN: The Power of the Dog.

Director:
  • Kenneth Branagh (“Belfast”)
  • Ryusuke Hamaguchi (“Drive My Car”)
  • Paul Thomas Anderson (“Licorice Pizza”)
  • Jane Campion (“The Power of the Dog”)
  • Steven Spielberg (“West Side Story”)
SHOULD WIN: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog.
WILL WIN: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog.

Lead Actor:
  • Javier Bardem (“Being the Ricardos”)
  • Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Power of the Dog”)
  • Andrew Garfield (“Tick,Tick,...Boom!")
  • Will Smith (“King Richard”)
  • Denzel Washington  (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”)
SHOULD WIN: Will Smith, King Richard.
WILL WIN: Will Smith, King Richard.

Lead Actress:
  • Jessica Chastain (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”)
  • Olivia Colman (“The Lost Daughter”)
  • Penélope Cruz (“Parallel Mothers”)
  • Nicole Kidman  (“Being the Ricardos”)
  • Kristen Stewart (“Spencer”)
SHOULD WIN: Kristen Stewart, Spencer.
WILL WIN: Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Supporting Actor:
  • Ciarán Hinds (“Belfast”)
  • Troy Kotsur (“CODA”)
  • Jesse Plemons (“The Power of the Dog”)
  • J.K. Simmons (“Being the Ricardos”)
  • Kodi Smit-McPhee  (“The Power of the Dog”)
SHOULD WIN: Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog.
WILL WIN: Troy Katsur, CODA.

Supporting Actress:
  • Jessie Buckley (“The Lost Daughter”)
  • Ariana DeBose (West Side Story”)
  • Judi Dench (“Belfast”)
  • Kirsten Dunst  (“The Power of the Dog”)
  • Aunjanue Ellis (“King Richard”)
SHOULD WIN: Aunjanue Ellis, King Richard.
WILL WIN: Ariana DeBose, West Side Story.

Original Screenplay:
  • Kenneth Branagh (“Belfast”)
  • Adam McKay; Story by Adam McKay & David Sirota (“Don't Look Up”)
  • Zach Baylin (“King Richard”)
  • Paul Thomas Anderson ("Licorice Pizza")
  • Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier (“The Worst Person in the World)
SHOULD WIN: Belfast.
WILL WIN: Belfast.

Adapted Screenplay:
  • Siân Heder (“CODA”)
  • Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe (“Drive My Car”)
  • Jon Spaihts and Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth (“Dune”)
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal ("The Lost Daughter")
  • Jane Campion (“The Power of the Dog”)
SHOULD WIN: Dune.
WILL WIN: CODA.

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